By Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA
In her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about the relentless pressure she faced to be upbeat while undergoing treatment for cancer. Any lapse in positive attitude would give aid and comfort to the cancer cells attacking her body and she would somehow be responsible for the failure of her treatment. Positive thinking leads to positive results that inexorably lead to happiness!
The pursuit of happiness in American culture has become an obsession. Discomfort, unease and disease are to be avoided if possible and dealt with firmly with the aid of the appropriate analgesic—medical, emotional, social or religious—if necessary. Tension in relationships or within oneself isn’t to be tolerated. Relief becomes the greater good.
We have become a pain-averse, anesthetized society. We believe that everything is just right the way it is. Or at least we believe that everyone else leads a model life in a perfect family and finds happiness and fulfillment in an awesome career while doing Nobel Peace Prize-caliber volunteer work, dissertation-level research in their hobby of studying 19th-century French rural history and working on sustainable organic gardening in their spare time. All effortlessly. And if we’re not living that vision of the good life, then we need to perk up.
In this sense, happiness, as defined by our culture, is overrated.
There are times in our lives when we should feel pain. There are times when tension shouldn’t be resolved too quickly. There are times when we should struggle. I’m not advocating the when-I-was-your-age-we-walked-uphill-to-school-both-ways-in-the-snow-while-chewing-on-lead-based-paint-and-wrapped-in-asbestos kind of toughness.Rather, I’m raising the possibility that “happiness” that avoids all discomfort is a desperate and fruitless illusion. It’s life-dulling and can become a kind of captivity, an all-consuming search for relief that, significantly, leads to a life of consumption. We end up being desperately happy.
Life in Christ offers an alternative. Joy. This is an active, living participation in the gracious love of God demonstrated in Christ’s death and resurrection. The crucifixion wasn’t a painless event. The Passion was Jesus’ deliberate stripping away of anything that could mitigate or dull the agony of sin and death assailing life and love.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
This ultimate act of radical presence and vulnerability by a passionate God gives us life, hope and a future even and especially in the face of all of the ugly and deadly things life throws at us. This is diametrically opposed to a “happiness” that immures us in empty comfort. This is true joy.
It’s an odd and difficult thing that the cross is a symbol of joy. It might be even more odd and difficult to believe and trust that a life conformed to the suffering, serving and death of Jesus is, in fact, the good life. The world offers “happiness”; Christ gives joy. The world wants “easy”; our life in Christ gives simplicity. The world promotes an anesthetized life; the cruciform life makes it possible for us to be completely present. The world touts positive thinking; we’re invited to have the same mind that is in Christ.
And so, dear church, what form might this joy take? Joined in baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ we can be fully aware of suffering—our own and that of others—and not turn away from it. Acknowledging pain, we are compelled to bring healing. Living in the tension between God’s merciful will and the brokenness caused by human sin that the cross brings into greater relief, we can point to the ultimate victory of God even as we work to realize it in our communities.
Jesus didn’t die to make us happy. Jesus died so that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete.
A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in The Lutheran’s November 2015 issue. Reprinted with permission.